Activism, Fiction, Politics

The Forgotten Story of How “Punching Up” Harmed the Science-Fiction/Fantasy World

The recent blowup over New York Times editorial board hire Sarah Jeong and her racially charged Twitter trail turned into a brawl over a key question in today’s cultural polemics: Whether derogatory speech about whites should be considered racist and, more generally, whether there is such a thing as anti-white racism. Most of Jeong’s defenders on the left not only argued that she shouldn’t lose her job but insisted that there was nothing particularly wrong with her white-bashing tweets, whether they were meant to mock racist trolls or criticize “white privilege.” “To equate ‘being mean to white people’ with the actual systemic oppression and marginalization of minority groups is a false equivalency,” wrote Vox reporter Aja Romano in a supposedly objective “explainer.”

As the Jeong drama demonstrates, the view that “woke” white-bashing is a harmless, justified, and perhaps even commendable form of “punching up” is now mainstream in liberal/progressive culture in North America (and some other Western countries). And yet another culture-war episode from four years ago—one that, as it happens, Romano also covered in detail—shows that this mindset can cause very real damage.

The defense of “punching up” is a fundamental part of the left-identitarian ideology (also known as “social justice” or “intersectionality”) that has become the quasi-official progressive creed in the 2010s.  In this creed, all human interaction is seen primarily through the lens of “power dynamics” and the “oppression/privilege” hierarchy; thus, hostile or demeaning speech is judged by whether the speaker and the target are “privileged” or “marginalized.”

There are many reasons, both moral and practical, to criticize this ideology. It inevitably undermines modern Western society’s hard-won taboo on racial insults and is likely to provoke a backlash. It relies on crude and often skewed definitions of power, privilege and oppression—so that, for instance, Jeong, a Harvard Law School graduate and successful journalist from a minority group with higher income and lower incarceration rates than white Americans, can outscore an unemployed white high school dropout in “oppression points.” (Or so that Jeong supporter Rani Molla, another journalist with an elite degree and from a thriving demographic, can deride “whiny” rural white workers at a chicken processing plant.)

However, the normalization of “punching up” can also do more immediate and tangible harm. In many cases, it can enable and excuse abusive behavior supposedly motivated by righteous anger or “anti-oppression” activism.

Jeong herself has been spotted minimizing the infamous Twitter-shaming of Justine Sacco in 2013. Sacco, a public relations executive, lost her job and had to go into hiding after becoming the target of a social media mob over a joke that was intended to mock “white privilege” but was perceived as racist.

But another incident the following year—which received fairly little notice outside the science fiction/fantasy community, but was the subject of a long article by Romano in the digital culture magazine The Daily Dot—offers a far more dramatic example of wreckage left by a serial harasser cloaked in the mantle of “anti-racism” and “social justice.”

In September 2014, the sci-fi/fantasy world was rocked by revelations about the bizarre online past of a much-praised young author in the field, the Thai-born, Hong Kong-based Benjanun Sriduangkaew, one of that year’s finalists for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Sriduangkaew was outed as a notorious social justice “rage-blogger” known by the fitting moniker “Requires Hate” (a shortened version of the title of her blog, “Requires Only That You Hate”), whose vitriol-soaked takedowns and callouts of “problematic” works and authors had sown fear in the SFF community since 2011. What’s more, Requires Hate also doubled as a prolific troll and cyberbully who mainly went by “Winterfox” but sometimes used other handles.

After several weeks of heated debates, a lengthy, detailed, carefully researched report on Sriduangkaew’s activities under her various aliases was posted by sci-fi writer Laura Mixon on her LiveJournal blog.

It makes for a hair-raising read. Requires Hate’s rants made Jeong’s tweets sound like drawing-room pleasantries. She frequently resorted to graphic threats of murder, rape, mutilation, acid attacks, and other extreme violence. Of American sci-fi novelist Paolo Bacigalupi, whom she blasted as a “raging racist fuck” and an “appropriative bag of feces,” she wrote, “If I see [him] being beaten in the street I’ll stop to cheer on the attackers and pour some gasoline on him,” and “Let him be hurt, let him bleed, pound him into the fucking ground. No mercy.” Irish-American author Caitlyn Kiernan was branded a “rape apologist” whose “hands should be cut off so she can never write another Asian character.”

According to Mixon, Sriduangkaew, often aided by her followers, had at various times tried to “suppress the publication of fiction and reviews” and get speakers disinvited from panels and readings; cyber-stalked sci-fi fans who had crossed her; “chased down positive reviews” in order to “frighten reviewers and fans away” from promoting works she disliked; and “single-handedly destroyed several online SFF, fanfic, and videogaming communities with her negative, hostile comments and attacks.” (All italics in the original.) Moreover, “At least one of her targets was goaded into a suicide attempt.”

Mixon’s post prompted many of Requires Hate’s victims—including some who were not named in the report, such as Canadian author J.M. Frey—to speak up in the comments. Their accounts were shocking, not only for what they revealed about Sriduangkaew’s behavior but for her targets’ reactions. Frey, whose award-nominated, well-reviewed 2011 debut novel Triptych was repeatedly trashed on the Requires Hate blog, wrote:

I nearly stopped writing when this happened. I shook every time I sat down to a keyboard. It took me 75 drafts to turn in a novel (with a [person of color] lead!) to my agent. I cried a lot. … When I saw her site’s links incoming in my website meta data I felt sick. I had to learn how to block them.

Mostly I’ve gotten over it, but every single time I sit down to write a new project, I have to give myself a pep talk about how I have to write what I want… I second guess everything I write now. I waffle, and bemoan, and I try to be good at representation and gender and sexuality in my books, but nobody is perfect and I feared, I genuinely feared putting more books out into the world because I was scared.

Frey also wrote that Requires Hate’s tirades made her scared of more than social disapproval. She began to avoid conventions, fearing that she would run into her tormentor and that the latter “would escalate from words to something horrible, something physical,” such as “come across a dance floor and hit me in the head with a beer bottle.”

Several other commenters also wrote that being targeted by Requires Hate and her minions affected them profoundly. Charles Terhune, an American sci-fi author, said that as a new writer just getting his start in the field, the experience left him “scarred and skittish for a long time”—and wary of “writing anything other than white male characters.” Colum Paget, a British writer who found himself on the receiving end of her invective, admitted that he “pretty much stopped writing because of it.”

One commenter also provided striking details of how “Winterfox” was able to wreak havoc in a LiveJournal community (ironically, one dedicated to books by “people of color”) and ultimately cause it to implode:

Every time she viciously insulted an author or a fellow community member, she framed it as bravely speaking out against racism and other injustices. No matter what anyone said, Winterfox found a way to twist it into them being a racist pig and herself being the only one standing up for what’s right. If she could not immediately find anything in a person’s comments to twist and misconstrue, she would simply accuse them of being white. If they responded that they were not white, she would accuse them of being mixed race or no longer living in the country of their ancestors. Only she was an authentic person of color, and only she could judge what was racist and what was not….

The mods … were worried that by telling Winterfox she couldn’t do this stuff anymore, they would be silencing a person of color who had a right to be angry about injustice. They eventually put up an “Insults Policy” post explaining that you couldn’t insult community members for no reason, but that it was okay to “snarkily” call them out for being racist, sexist, etc.

Mixon herself was upfront about the fact that Sriduangkaew’s reign of terror was made possible by the political culture in the SFF community: since Requires Hate self-identified as an Asian lesbian, she had the backing of “progressives … who appreciate[d] that—despite her sometimes over-the-top rhetoric—she unapologetically sp[oke] up for people of color and queer/ LGBTQI people, calling out racist, homophobic, misogynist content in many popular SFF novels and stories.”  Interestingly, Mixon also pointed to evidence that Sriduangkaew’s abusive online behavior had begun with nasty but nonpolitical forum trolling—until “at some point she discovered social-justice-driven rage-speak and found it to be a particularly effective weapon.”

Yet Mixon, herself a prominent member of the community’s progressive elite (her husband, sci-fi writer Stephen Gould, was then president of the Science Fiction Writers’ Association), took pains not to deviate too far from the party line. While she condemned Requires Hate’s “social justice hackery,” she emphasized that “discussions about colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia in our works” are difficult but “necessary” and that writers should welcome being sensitized to their “privilege.”

Mixon also went out of her way to stress that Requires Hate’s claims of “punching up” were belied by her tendency to go after “women, people of color, and other marginalized or vulnerable people” (emphasis in the original). The post even featured pie charts showing that of the definitively identified victims of her cyberbullying, nearly three quarters were women, about 40 percent were “POCs,” and a substantial proportion were “Queer/LGBTQI.” When one commenter expressed annoyance at the suggestion that white, straight, cisgender males were “Acceptable Targets,” Mixon replied, “I do think a case can be made for marginalized people’s right to punch up.”

Meanwhile, Sriduangkaew—who had at first indignantly denied the rumors identifying her as Requires Hate/Winterfox, until they were confirmed by a prominent editor—posted an apology in which she admitted to being a “horrendous asshole” and doing terrible things while believing that she was “punching up and doing good.” Her post promised “no excuses.” Then, she followed up with another blogpost that amounted to a litany of excuses—from claims that she herself was a target of stalkers to finger-pointing at white men who had supposedly gotten away with worse behavior. (Less than a year later, in a post on a protected Twitter account, she was comparing herself to a reputed victim of misogynist hate mobs and her opponents to various far-right bogeymen.)

As for Romano’s Daily Dot article on the controversy, it was notable mainly for its almost comically doctrinaire identity-politics framing of the story:

The question of whether to accept or repudiate Sriduangkaew after the discovery is complicated. On the one hand, Sriduangkaew, who has claimed to be a Thai-born Thai writer who is ethnically Chinese, is a much-needed example of an excellent, well-liked writer whose multicultural voice is an important addition to the sparse population of non-white writers in the world of speculative publishing. On the other hand, her troll voice has often worked to loudly silence other members of marginalized identities. … Is the outing and subsequent repudiation of Sriduangkaew all just an act of tone policing—an effort to silence a voice raised in anger?

Romano did briefly wonder if the tendency to circle the wagons around minority writers in the field could go too far (as with Samuel “Chip” Delany, a biracial gay author who openly supports a group championing sex between adult men and underage boys). But she also respectfully quoted the opinions of those who saw the rush to condemn Sriduangkaew’s past trolling as “an example of white privilege attempting to silence writers of color.” In the end, Romano concluded that “the condemnation is natural; but whether its work is to ultimately silence or empower the voices of women and minorities in speculative fiction remains to be seen.”

Despite such misgivings, the anti-Sriduangkaew side mostly prevailed. Mixon’s exposé was praised by notables such as George R. R. Martin; in August 2015, it even won the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, given to sci-fi-related nonfiction work for nonpaying or low-paying magazines or websites. The award could be seen as a repudiation of “social justice” extremism, in a year when the Hugos and the sci-fi/fantasy community faced a challenge from the right (the so-called “Sad Puppies” slate created by mostly conservative authors who believed that the awards had become too politicized by the left). But it is worth noting that the “Requires Hate” debacle had specific elements that made it easier for progressives to rally against Sriduangkaew. She had targeted not only people with bona fide “oppressed identities”—including  sexual assault survivors—but prominent, highly regarded minority authors, such as N.K. Jemisin and Saladin Ahmed.

Even so, there were those who found the award for Mixon’s piece troubling. “It just feels like a white woman elder putting the younger woman of color in her ‘place,’” fretted one writer.

It also noteworthy that mainstream media outlets completely ignored the Benjanun Sriduangkaew/Requires Hate scandal (at the same time that they gave extensive coverage to claims of misogynist harassment by GamerGate, the anti-“political correctness” revolt in the videogame community). The lack of interest in a cyberbullying story that had a major impact in the sci-fi/fantasy world was especially remarkable given this story’s genuinely fascinating twists—including the continuing mystery of the woman behind the multiple masks. (It is open knowledge that “Benjanun Sriduangkaew” is a pseudonym; an unconfirmed, albeit persuasive, blog report identifies her as a California-born member of an extremely wealthy Thai family, now in her late twenties.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sriduangkaew was never really ostracized by the sci-fi/fantasy establishment. A month after the Mixon report was recognized by the Hugos, one of Sriduangkaew’s stories ran in Clarkesworld, a leading online sci-fi/fantasy magazine; last year, her novella Winterglass was published as a book by Apex, a major publisher in the field. (None of the generally mediocre reviews mentioned the author’s notorious past; her cutesy official bio says that she “writes love letters to strange cities and the future.”) Sriduangkaew has even started making a comeback as a “social justice warrior”: Last February, Apex included her in an “intersectional roundtable” of authors, though the feature was eventually taken down after strong objections—and reports of more recent abusive behavior.

The Benjanun Sriduangkaew/Requires Hate saga is a striking cautionary tale in a number of ways. It shows how easily performative bashing of “the oppressors” or “the privileged” can turn into vicious bullying and harassment toward real people—and how easily a “marginalized” person can be reclassified as a “privileged” acceptable target.  It shows what a devastating weapon anti-oppression outrage and social justice rhetoric can be in the hands of a malicious abuser, making it very difficult to curb the abuser’s behavior and making the victims particularly susceptible: witness the mind-boggling fact that an anonymous blogger’s unhinged ranting could make published authors afraid to write. The Mixon report, Romano’s Daily Dot article, and the comments on both pieces offer a rather scary glimpse into a toxic, cult-like “social justice” subculture.

Drama in the sci-fi/fantasy fandom may not be of great consequence for larger society (though the politicization of culture is a real and spreading problem). But when the ideology that enabled Requires Hate dominates academia, gains a strong presence in the mainstream media, and makes inroads into corporate culture, the cautionary tale should be a warning to us all.

 

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the title of Sriguandkaew’s blog as “This Requires Only That You Hate,” based on an error in the 2014 Daily Dot report. Also, Colum Paget was wrongly identified as Irish; he is British, of partly Irish heritage. Quillette regrets the error. 

Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist and author. She is a columnist for Newsday and a contributing editor for Reason magazine and ArcDigital. Her work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Weekly Standard, Foreign Policy, and Slate. You can follow her on Twitter 

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